Sunday, June 25, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 311: On Maranasati

On Maranasati

In Theravada Buddhist monasteries, the monks display pictures of dead, decaying bodies. This is part of their religious tradition of maranasati, mindfulness of death. One of their standard meditations is a form of exposure therapy. On a regular basis, they contemplate the end of their mortal existence. Pictures of death and decay are their visual aids and props.

Although I read about it decades ago, I brushed it aside as meaningless to me. That's because I grew up thinking about death in much the same way, though. Every day, I contemplated dying. Occasionally, I saw relatives die. I buried any number of pets. The Theravada tradition of imagining the stages of a corpse seemed like a childish thing to me precisely because I'd done it as a child. Ultimately, no corpse can be you in any meaningful sense. The transitory, illusory sense of self that was once associated with a pile of bones is completely irrelevant to those bones eventually. Your corpse may give something for your loved ones to ponder. But I doubt it. At the least, I doubt it will do them much good.
Recently, in a book called From Strength to Strength, I came across a modern version of the Theravada tradition. It is a sort of maransati for the second half of life, a pre-death meditation. It is possibly more interesting.

Strength to Strength is not necessarily a good book, nor is it bad. It is a book that could just as easily be entitled, "This guy discovered Buddhism late in his life and wrote a lot about it." It might prove useful to many readers because there's always a bit of usefulness to be gleaned from reviewing the transitory nature of everything. Also, everyone's personal experience adds a bit of helpful context.

Here is the modern maranasati proposed in the book. It is written for self-perceived "high achievers" who are having difficulty reconciling themselves to their natural decline with age. The idea is to visualize each stage.

1. I am aware of my competence declining
2. People around me notice I am not as sharp as I once was
3. Other people receive the professional accolades I used to receive
4. My workload is decreasing
5. I'm no longer able to work well
6. Many people do not know me from my work any longer
7. I'm alive but professionally, I'm no longer a good example
8. I'm losing my ability to communicate well
9. I'm dead and no longer remembered at all

Despite my initial reaction decades ago, I think the practice of maransati is useful. What's more, I see some potential for this modern take on it. I plan to think about this some more.


In response to comments/questions about the careerist nature of the advice, I should again note how the book assumes that the readers have their self-images wrapped up into their careers. This problematic part of human nature is the essential target of the book. Careers fade, of course. That's where the author, Arthur C. Brooks, begins to notice his personal need for Buddhism. Naturally, this approach seems late in coming to most Buddhists.

However, the author correctly identifies how mental and physical capacity diminish with age. I found this aspect encouraging. Such diminishment is assumed in the traditional maranasati, too, but it is not the focus. 

According to Buddhism or Stoicism, before he wrote the book, Brooks should have questioned his desire for accolades and worldly successes. He does acknowledge his problem with those. Letting go of attachments is not really the approach he takes, unfortunately. He recognizes his striving for status is dysfunctional. He compares it to alcoholism and other addictions. Yet his yearning for status and approval shine through in the book. 

Nevertheless, he comes to his version of the maranasati. He develops other strategies related to Buddhism that may be encouraging for him and his readers. These are good things, although the author aims himself and others at high-performing rebirths into new professions rather than into any forms of enlightenment. 

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